On this day in WNC history: Dubbed “the greatest event, politically at least, in the history of Asheville and Western North Carolina” by the Asheville Citizen, the famed populist William Jennings Bryan made a presidential campaign appearance in WNC on this day in 1896. He appears to have been the first presidential candidate to campaign in WNC.
Bryan, only thirty-six years old, became the Democratic presidential nominee in July amid a groundswell of populist support for expanding silver coinage. He delivered the famous “Cross of Gold” speech on his nomination, and set out on a whirlwind speaking tour, reaching an estimated five million people in twenty-seven states. After a short stop in Hot Springs, Bryan arrived amid throngs of spectators from across WNC at the Southern Railway depot in Asheville and attended a party at the Battery Park Hotel. He then rode in a parade to a speaking pulpit on Southside Avenue where future NC Democratic governor Locke Craig introduced him with evangelical flourish as “One…who came to preach the gospel to the poor.” After speaking for nearly an hour, Bryan departed to campaign further in Marion and Morganton.
In November, Bryan lost the presidential election by about 600,000 votes. WNC voters were split, with ten counties choosing Republican William McKinley, including Madison, Mitchell, and Polk by very large margins. Despite the clamor at his appearance, Buncombe County handily rejected Democratic candidates. The Asheville Citizen credited the predominantly Black Second Precinct with sweeping away the city’s Democratic majority. Bryan lost two additional presidential campaigns, but later served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, during which time he resided part time in Asheville, touring Mt. Pisgah and touting prohibition among his increasing “social gospel” advocacy.